I have kept wondering how come that Turkish cuisine has absorbed so much from the countries it borders with in the West, South and East but the influence from its northern neighbors (Ukraine and Russia) has been barely noticeable. I understand it may be harder to import food traditions by sea than it is by land but it did not seem a problem when it came to importing beautiful women from the North to populate the Harem. Besides such random occasions as the Black Sea ravioli – piruhi that look a lot like Ukrainian vareniki you don’t see Ukrainian- Russian food heritage around much. Or so I thought until I made blini..
This week my friends and family back in Russia will be eating lots of then: the blini week is typically preceding the Great Lent and presents the last opportunity to feast unlimited. The week culminates with the grandiose spring festival of Maslenitsa during which a straw effigy symbolizing winter is burned and spring is welcomed: hats down to Russian imagination and optimism because everything is still covered with snow and the temperatures are in deep minus.
Now, it is not typical for me to care for the holidays back home. After living abroad for so long and often having no one to share my festive enthusiasm with I stopped following most of the Russian holidays. Take the 8th of March that I’ve ignored this year. You must be in Russia on that day to understand what I am trying to say: a formality elsewhere the International Women’s Day is a huge thing in Russia when every woman dresses up to be at her best to receive compliments, flowers and presents that Russian men are famously generous with that day. And look at me: I act as if the 8th of March does not exist not to confuse my husband who is like a normal Turkish man dreads festivities of this kind.
But then there are a few Russian holidays that keep me deeply excited even from thousand miles away. And they are those we typically associate with food. Like Easter that kept me awake at night baking last year or Maslenitsa that got me in a mood for blini this week.
Many countries pride themselves on their blini but the Russian version is beyond competition: they are large, slightly thick, have a healthy buttery shine and laced with little pores. My grandma – a fearless and extremely capable home cook – always used curdled milk just like my mother-in-law uses cheese leftovers for her börek. Milk went sour? Let’d do blini. My grandma’s blini dough was always rather thick and so was the outcome which has become the golden standard of blini for me.
I can still picture it: entering the kitchen warmed up by the heat of the stove and infused with the smell of the melting butter and heading directly to the pile of blini grandma had already fried. Then picking up one, rolling it and dipping into the thick sour cream or homemade jam of black currents from our garden and washing it down with the black tea (not unlike strong Turkish tea) – this was my idea of a proper breakfast for the long time. Years later when I first ate blini at a friend’s house I learned to my astonishment that one can make bliny with milk and make the dough so runny that the bliny will turn paper thin! But I could never take liking on those.
I was bursting with pride when first making blini for my husband – only to hear his, “Ah, this is kaygana“. Sure, is there any food in the world Turks would not claim to be their own? Or could it be that kaygana represents those traces that Russian women brought to Turkey centuries ago?
I consulted “500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine” by Marianna Yerasimos, my trusted reference on the Ottoman cuisine, that contains a recipe of kaygana dating back to 15th century: the recipe with 6 eggs per 3 dessert spoons flour and 4 dessert spoons water or milk reminded me of Soviet omelet (ok, they replaced dessert spoons with cups) rather than Russian blini. I continued searching.
Another reference came from “Sherbet and Spice” a treatise by Mary Işın on Turkish sweets. Explaining the origins of ekmek kadaif, one of the sinful Turkish desserts she refers to the 10th century recipe of Arabic origin when kadaif was made with flour, yeast, salt and borax (additional leaven) and ladled onto marble slab or iron griddle heated over a fire and cooked on one side – just like the Russian blini in their original form. In Turkey you can still find this dish under the name of yassi kadaif or taş kadaif and it is used to make its namesake sweet, traditional for Hatay area. But then Işın mentions two other names the dish is known by in the other parts of Turkey – akıtma or cızlama.
As the category broadens I recall Moroccan baghrir with its pores looking like a honeycomb. And Indian dosa, Ephiopian injera and .. you name it. Probably the idea of making very thin dough by combining flour and water and increasing the yield by adding yeast has been so basic that my Slavic forefathers may have been not the first to stumble upon it. And indeed those Russian beauties dragged to Turkey have left no footprint on the Turkish food as they had no access to the cooking handled by the professional chefs at the kitchens of Harem. I have to put up with that and just continue turning my blini. Which may not be the original and only but for me – best of all anyway.
Cast-iron pan is best to frying blini: it will take literally seconds on a well heated up pan. Yet consider yourself warned: there is no way you can leave your frying blini unattended – the action tends to be intense.
Fantastic way to grease your pan and not to overload the blini with oil/butter is to use a half of potato as a brush: just pick it with a fork, dip into the oil/melted ghee and brush your frying pen before pouring the batter for each of your blini. Potato starch also does magic too – your blini get that mazagine-shot even golden brown color.
Serve with crème fraîche and jam.
Prep Time: 5 Min
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 tsp medium coarse sea salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 cup sour milk (kefir, thick buttermilk, or 5 tbsp Greek yoghurt mixed with enough water to produce 1 cup liquid)
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour sifted
- 1/4 cup whole-wheat flour sifted
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil or ghee for frying
- Prepare blini batter: In a large mixing bowl lightly whisk egg, salt and sugar. Mix in sour milk and baking soda. Finally, add the sifted flours and whisk well to combine and break any crumbles. Leave to rest for 10-15 minutes, as you are setting up your breakfast table.
- Fry blini: On the medium heat preheat your pan and grease (see note above). With a ladle or measuring cup (I like using 1/3 cup) pour batter into the center of the pan, instantly lift the pan and slightly decline it right then towards yourself then left and then away from you: you want your batter to spread into a thin layer. Place the pan back on the stove and watch: It will be very clear when you need to flip your blini to the other side: like omelet blini start cooking from the edges and gradually the moist shiny circle in the middle becomes smaller and smaller. Once it disappears – with a wooden spatula gently lift the blini and flip to the other side. If it’s darker then you wish reduce the heat a bit. Now watch again – the other side takes make quicker to cook, virtually seconds. Unload the cooked blini on a large flat plate and cover it with another – to keep the blini warm (and safe) as you continue frying. Serve immediately.